Local Obituaries

The face of South Florida theater, Charlie Cinnamon, dies at 94

Charlie Cinnamon, founder of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, had framed memories of the early days of the festival on the walls in his former Lincoln Road office. The beloved press agent is seen here on February 11, 2013.
Charlie Cinnamon, founder of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, had framed memories of the early days of the festival on the walls in his former Lincoln Road office. The beloved press agent is seen here on February 11, 2013. Miami Herald file

It is impossible to imagine theater without Charlie Cinnamon. Since the 1950s, he has been a major force on the scene — as a press agent, mentor and as a friend.

“Charlie Cinnamon is theater in South Florida,” 2016 special Tony award recipient Miles Wilkin, chief operating officer of Key Brand Entertainment, said in a 2000 Miami Herald story.

“Public Relations is a title. Charlie made it an art-form and NO ONE was better,” said Broadway director Richard Jay-Alexander.

If anyone was ever more plugged into South Florida’s arts scene than Cinnamon, a 1983 George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts winner from the Carbonell Awards, no one has come forward to name that person.

Cinnamon died Thursday morning. He would have been 95 on Saturday.

Right through his death — untimely even at 94 because who could ever imagine this never-say-retire dynamo ever exiting the stage? — Cinnamon kept working, most recently publicizing a Public Relations Society of America endowment fund luncheon in Key Biscayne in September.

Uncle Charlie had a world of family that loved, adored and respected him, as did his professional family. From six of his siblings, Uncle Charlie had a myriad of nieces, nephews, great nieces and nephews and countless great-great nieces and nephews and knew and loved each one — with each one being treated as the ‘favorite.’

Evelyn Baron, Charlie Cinnamon’s niece.

“Miami’s arts community is in mourning today. Charlie was a theater icon and, at the same time, a loyal friend. He made everyone feel like they were special. His one-on-one approach made everyone feel like the most important person in the room, which made it perfectly natural for clients and colleagues to become his dearest friends. There will never be another Charlie Cinnamon but the legions of friends he leaves behind will forever carry a bit of his spirit, his kindness and his joy. Our Charlie exists forever in our business and in our hearts,” said Liz Wallace, vice president of programming for the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Cinnamon has been a South Florida fixture since 1953. One of his most famous moves: a publicity stunt to promote a show at the Coconut Grove Playhouse became the Coconut Grove Arts Festival.

Faced with promoting a production of the French musical “Irma La Douce” at the theater in October 1963, the “dean of press agentry in South Florida” turned the streets surrounding the playhouse into a Left Bank/Parisian setting by creating the Left Bank Arts Festival.

Cinnamon's idea was that the Left Bank motif, merged with “a clothesline art show,” would put people in the proper mood to enjoy “Irma La Douce” and, more importantly, direct a host of eyes toward the theater's marquee in hopes of plumping up ticket sales.

“In those days, it was tough to get people to cross the causeway or from wherever to come to the Grove Playhouse. As a press agent looking for some sort of gimmick, since the show was set in Paris, let's do a Left Bank Art Show. We booked the whole weekend around it when it really was an arts colony here. People started to come. We never figured out if they bought any tickets,” Cinnamon said, chuckling, from his former office on Lincoln Road Mall for a 50th anniversary story in the Herald in 2013.

That initial show proved so successful it would return the following year — and again and again ever since — under the Coconut Grove Arts Festival banner. Cinnamon unwittingly created one of the nation's premiere juried art shows, one that has drawn millions of local visitors and tourists over the years, expanding into outreach programs at area schools and one that has helped to launch the careers of several name artists, including Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher and pop artist Romero Britto.

I love being in the mix, of finding out what’s happening. It’s my life’s blood.

Charlie Cinnamon, on why he’d never retire, in a 2000 Miami Herald story.

Cinnamon preferred the term “press agent” over publicist as a business title. It fit. He personified a cordial, professional relationship with the ever-evolving media for decades.

Jay-Alexander, director for Barbra Streisand’s concert tours, called Cinnamon, his longtime friend, the “classiest” act in the business. At the recent PRSA event, for instance, he credited Cinnamon for bringing together every element of the South Florida arts community — writer, publicist, critic, actor, singer, student.

“Charlie was one of the most extraordinary individuals anyone could ever hope to know,” he said Thursday. “He was beloved by generations of people whom he befriended, nurtured, mentored and loved. He was smart, entertaining, wise and a true professional. He was a master at his craft and I count him as one of my major mentors, since 1977, when we first met. When I had big life/career decisions, it was him and my Dad I always went to for advice and guidance.”

Said Christine Dolen, longtime theater critic for the Miami Herald: “From his unforgettable name to his forever-young joie de vivre, Charlie Cinnamon was born to be a publicist, and he became the best public relations practitioner the South Florida arts world has ever seen. Slight of stature but enormous in heart and passion, Charlie invariably turned his clients and those who covered them into his friends. His work and his life were one and the same, but working with Charlie never felt like work. Maintaining decades-long relationships with many of the region’s arts writers, critics and editors, Charlie would pitch stories, set up the interviews that brought depth to those stories, then follow through with background material, photos and eventually videos – anything that made a journalist’s job (and writing about his client) easier.”

Cinnamon’s methodology? The personal touch. He advanced into the world of e-mails but preferred phone calls or face-to-face meetings. He eschewed social media’s concept of “friends” for flesh-and-blood friends. He didn’t maintain a Facebook or Twitter account despite being au courant and timely in every possible manner.

As far back as 2000, he told the Herald. “Everything is so accelerated that there’s no time for human contact. People e-mail and fax and talk a lot less. I think that’s a huge loss. How do you establish a relationship? The sounds of voices make a difference.”

And, oh, the voices Cinnamon delivered to South Florida.

Cinnamon worked 26 years as spokesman for impresario Zev Buffman before leading promotional efforts for the touring series’ Broadway Across America Miami, Broadway in Miami and Broadway in Fort Lauderdale, as well as the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami and with local impresario Judy Drucker.

“Charlie Cinnamon entered my life and everything became a ray of sunshine. We ruled the world ahead of us. We were going to change it! Between our boundless energy, optimism and lack of any fear, we dreamed big together and did great things. I never met another ‘Charlie’ nor loved anyone so deeply,” Buffman posted on Facebook.

Yul Brynner famously played the title role of “The King and I” for a Buffman production at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach in 1976 — and drove Cinnamon near crazy with his demands for a more fitting dressing room. But it was Cinnamon who was true royalty.

Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Joan Collins, Jose Ferrer, George Abbott, Carol Channing, Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, Mary Martin, Chita Rivera and Lucie Arnaz all became his friends and often confidantes.

Arnaz took to Facebook to post her condolence. “Oh, my goodness. This brought a tear to my eyes. I loved Charlie Cinnamon! He was the REAL DEAL. A class act. There are very few like him left in our business. In ANY business. I am so glad he got to leave after the going got gone,” she wrote.

Dolen said, “Charlie had a real gift for dealing with those larger-than-life personalities, putting both the boldface names and the people who covered them at ease.”

He made stars so comfortable, no less a formidable presence than Tallulah Bankhead, the Black Widow in the campy 1960s TV series “Batman,” once hoisted her skirt backstage at the Coconut Grove Playhouse to show Cinnamon her colostomy bag when she was performing “Good Tidings.” Taylor took Cinnamon’s call to host a benefit for AIDS research in Miami and raised $2.5 million in a single night.

Hollywood premieres? We had them, too, under Cinnamon’s direction.

Cinnamon remembered the publicity stunts he'd conjure for the Lincoln Road movie theaters he represented on the mall, like the Lincoln, Carib and the Beach. He orchestrated the opening of Taylor's epic “Cleopatra” in 1963 at the Lincoln and the British comedy “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” two years later at the Carib.

“I did the opening of ‘Cleopatra’ and we had a parade down Washington Avenue with the Miami Beach High School [marching band]. In those days we had big parades and the Lincoln was the theater,” Cinnamon told the Herald in 2013. “For ‘Magnificent Men’ we had vintage cars and airmen and a parade. Fantastic openings. Hollywood openings right here in Miami. We haven't had that in years and it's so sad that we don't have that kind of premiere anymore where the whole community joined in to have big events and red carpet openings.”

Nobody can touch him. He can pick up the phone and get people to work with him or for him.

Former Miami News critic Bill Von Maurer, who knew Charlie Cinnamon since the 1950s, in a 2000 Miami Herald story.

His reach extended far beyond the world of the arts, as well.

“At our firm we do occasional off the record sessions with all the staff (about 60 to 70) and ultra interesting people, covering all kinds of businesses and from all around the world. In the years we have been doing this we have only ever invited one person in the public relations industry. That was Charlie. He was great. Everyone in the firm was fascinated and charmed,” said Bruce S. Rubin, senior counsel at Miami’s rbb Communications.

The youngest of eight children born to an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bronx, Cinnamon is not the creation of a publicist. When his family's Russian-Polish ancestors passed through Ellis Island, immigration officials erroneously recorded their last name as “Cinnamon” and it supplanted a surname he never could recall.

After serving in Patton's Third Army and helping to liberate a concentration camp in World War II — “I don't talk about it; it's always like a shadow in your mind,” he told the Herald in 2000 — Cinnamon went to New York University on the GI Bill, majoring in journalism.

Suddenly, Broadway was accessible to the young man, its pull magnetic.

“You never got to Broadway when you lived in the Bronx, but when I started to go to school...,” Cinnamon reminisced in a 2015 Herald story. “The lights of Broadway and the magic inside is what hooked me. Oddly enough, the first show I recall best was not a musical but Arthur Laurents' ‘Home of the Brave.’ That story of a guy coming back from the war really moved me. That was really something that kicked me in the kishkes. The next big thing was ‘Oklahoma!’ and I was ready for my close-up.”

In the 1950s Cinnamon moved to South Florida and worked his way up from a $25-a-week publicist for the Empress Hotel.

“Charlie was a man of deep faith, loyalty and boundless enthusiasm,” Dolen said. “He knew where the bodies were buried, but as with his age, his health and his mortality, certain subjects were off limits. For me, Charlie was both a valued colleague and a dear friend. In the world of South Florida arts and culture, he was a towering figure. His passing truly is the end of an era.”

I admired, adored and was inspired by Charlie my entire career. We will need the Arsht Center — no, maybe Hard Rock Stadium — to accommodate all of us whose life he touched.

Connie Crowther, president Crowther & Company Communications.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, at Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapel, 20955 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura.

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